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Selling joy to the world

By Sunity Maharaj

In this age of galloping automation, it is wonderfully delightful to be reminded of the human capacity for contrariness.

For what else is one to make of the Gallup poll's finding that Trinidad and Tobago, land of general madness and mayhem, is among the top five happiest countries in the world?

In contrast, the unhappiest of all is Singapore, that global standard of ordered development that so many have tried so hard to shoe-horn us into ever since Lee Kuan Yew trans- formed that old colony into a raging Asian tiger.

According to a CNN report, Gallup based its happy-country rankings on a survey conducted in 148 countries last year. In each country, some 1,000 persons were asked five questions about their positive experiences on the day before: "If they had been well-rested, treated with respect, if they smiled or laughed a lot, and whether they'd done or learnt something interesting."

To be fair to the Singaporeans, the survey's playing field may not have been all that level. Singaporeans probably don't consider their on-the-job hours in calculating their state of restfulness and they probably laugh only when they're happy or pleased unlike in T&T, where even thing to cry makes we laugh.

On top of that, T&T had the unfair advantage of being under a State of Emergency for fully one-third of 2011 which, as would be expected, dramatically increased our state of restfulness, provided untold opportunity for mirth and laughter and taught us something new and interesting each day. Sometimes each hour, depending on the number of news conferences called by the Government, the police and residents of Nelson Street.

So, yes, Gallup has a lot more work to do if sense is to be teased out of the responses in its attempt to benchmark global happiness. Still, even with greater refinement, we'll be hard to beat.

For one thing, Gallup's findings raise the possibility that we may be living in a happy part of the planet where happiness is actually infectious. For out of the 149 countries surveyed, the Happy Top Ten is comprised entirely of countries from Caribbean/Latin America, with the exception of Thailand and the Philippines. If you haven't seen the report, here's the happy order: Panama (85 per cent); Paraguay (85 per cent); El Salvador (84 per cent); Venezuela (84 per cent); Trinidad and Tobago (83 per cent); Thailand (83 per cent); Guatemala (82 per cent); Philippines (82 per cent) Ecuador (81 per cent); Costa Rica (81 per cent).

Of course, none of this would come as a surprise to us. We've always known that we're a happy bunch. So happy, in fact, that the popular diagnosis of any one of our many national disorders is that we're simply too damn happy. Given the general haphazard conditions under which such happiness thrives, the Gallup poll is likely to reinforce our long-held suspicion that all that development is just not good for you.

In support of this view, we could even cite global depression statistics which, according to a report released by the World Health Organisation in July last year, is highest in industrialised nations.

France led the way, followed closely by the United States.

An interesting finding of the Gallup poll was that of an income point, beyond which more money did not bring more happiness. Which only serves to underscore the point that money can't buy happiness, even when it buys some material comfort.

The point is equally emphasised in Happy, a documentary by Oscar-nominated director Roko Belic, who embarked on a quest across 75 countries to understand the nature and sources of happiness after reading a 2005 survey with conclusions similar to the recent Gallup poll.

Inside the statistical froth is a kernel of deep value for countries like ours that are blinded to their own worth by an acquired culture of self-contempt. Wracked by self-hate, we keep chasing mirages of progress, wasting good time, money and energy in trying to redesign ourselves for markets that simply do not exist.

If, by some Christmas miracle, we could lift the blinders from our eyes and see ourselves as we really are, we would understand why our development approaches keep failing us. We, with our capacity for supplying joy to the world, are what the rich, lonely, depressed world needs and wants, more than ever. Not as pageantry and parody but as spirit, if only to feel human again.

Years ago, Wendy Fitzwilliam enthusiastically described her country as "the party capital of the world".

And why not? Behind the brand is a bubbling well-spring of expertise in spreading joy on the head of pin, with minimum resources and to maximum effect. From our finely tuned sense of the market to the creativity of our strategies, our clarity in distilling the essence of entertaining others, the rhythm of our music and our lives, the experience that is our food, the marvel that is our personality, the unbounded vista of our intellect and our sheer joie de vivre in being creatively employed, we are the full-service package. Unfortunately, we keep giving it away for free while looking for something else to sell.

This is the gift that an otherwise brutal history has given us. Weighted down by brutal reality, we found our way to a lightness of spirit that has never deserted us.

Incapacitated by our colonial education, however, we are unable even to recognise the value around us, repeatedly dismissing it as unambitious and troublesome humbug. Our prescriptions are obsessed with form and dismissive of the substance of spirit. Even before we start, we are doomed to failure. Until we kneel before the spirit of the creative force that keeps this land, our efforts will rise no higher than farce.

Chained to the gifts of history, however, are its curses. Of them, self-contempt must surely be the most damaging and dangerous.

The tension between gift and curse is as alive today as it has always been. In this battle, there are no clear-cut sides and, indeed, the conflict may reside in each of us, one or the other rising to the fore, depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If we are honest, we would concede that even when we do worse, we know better.

As we rest our cudgels in this season of goodwill and plot our path into 2013, let us consider the option of choosing to be happy.

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